Any librarian I know will offer the same advice to LIS students: “Get experience!” It’s pretty much our mantra. It’s also what advanced LIS students will tell their newer grad school peers as they learn from working in libraries and see how these experiences complement and sometimes also contrast with or even supplant what they’re learning in coursework. As someone who’s been a member of various job search committees, I’ve read hundreds and hundreds (maybe even over a thousand?) resumes and cover letters, many of which were from applicants starting out in academic libraries. I’ve worked with LIS students routinely as a manager, as a field experience advisor, and as a coach. I’ve also been fortunate to supervise a number of entry-level and early career librarians. So it’s from this background that I tell LIS students that their work experiences in libraries matter more than coursework, not equal to it. Furthermore, it’s essential for these students to think critically about what they’re learning, and really reflect on their experiences. Work opportunities in libraries will help you get a job; being a “reflective practitioner” will make you awesome. So below I share some perspectives on why experience as a grad student is important. It’s some specific advice I often give to individual grad students, and hopefully it will be helpful to a broader audience.
“Legitimate Peripheral” What?
In their seminal book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger examine the social dynamics of learning, specifically how people learn in communities of practice. They focus on the ways apprenticeships in a wide variety of fields and cultures — from midwifery to tailoring to meat butchering — are used to help novices move from knowing very little towards greater expertise in that practice. Across different professional scenarios they found that learning to become a practitioner involved what they term “legitimate peripheral participation.” What a mouthful! What they mean is this: to become part of a community of practice, you begin by participating in work that is real to the practice (i.e. “legitimate”) and begins on the edge (i.e. “peripheral”) but moves towards “full participation” over time. For example, a student working at a reference desk — especially working side-by-side with practicing professionals — is part of real reference practice, rather than answering reference questions as part of a course. Similarly, co-teaching library instruction sessions with a librarian involves the participant in legitimate practice as he or she learns to work with faculty, outline learning objectives, design the workshops, interact with students, and so forth. Over time such work builds up a foundation of experience from which to draw as you confront new scenarios and professional challenges. You continue to build this foundation throughout your career as you branch out into new experiences that push up against what you already know.
It should be totally obvious that answering real reference questions is better experience than answering questions in the vacuum of coursework. But too frequently LIS programs don’t do enough to launch students into the world of professional practice that will (a) help them become librarians and (b) help them land that first job. There is typically little structure to help students enter legitimate, meaningful work. Yeah, there are some internships out there that might function as an “apprenticeship,” but for the most part students need to piece together this apprenticeship for themselves. Such effort is really critical, especially given the competition in today’s job market. I don’t mean to scare LIS students; I believe there are helpful LIS professionals who want to assist and support. But it’s necessary for LIS students to take control of their own learning through the work experiences they pursue.
Some Specific Advice
1. From firsthand experience, I tell LIS students that it’s rare for a search committee to care what courses you take in library school. So get a foot in the door of a library any way you can. This might take the form of signing up for the least desirable shifts or driving 40 minutes to a library where fewer students work. It’s also worth it to juggle multiple student jobs, as crazy as it might make your schedule. Kevin has offered his own really valuable perspective on this before.
2. Always take the field experience or practicum credit when possible. Use the field experience to get new kinds of experiences and deeper experiences rather than simply to get credit for an existing job. Field experiences are often unpaid. Do it anyway.
3. Seek out richer experiences than the baseline. For example, in my field a student working at a reference desk in an academic library is the baseline. But it’s no longer enough because it’s such a common kind of experience for students to get. You’ve got to get experiences that distinguish you from others, deepen your exposure, and provide ever greater context for what librarianship is really about. These opportunities also tend to be the experiences that push you deeper into legitimate practice, so in whatever work situation you find yourself, seek out special projects. Offer to do them for free, if necessary.
4. Whenever possible talk to practicing librarians about what they do day to day. Often the work that librarians find most important is hidden from the view of student jobs. See if it’s possible to do projects or field experiences that will expose this more hidden “back of house” sort of work. It’ll greatly expand your understanding of how librarians, library departments, and libraries as a whole function.
5. As Kevin’s also advised, look at job announcements early in graduate school and frequently throughout. Use the announcements to figure out what kinds of experiences to pursue. If you need help interpreting what a stated qualification really means and how you might get the kind of experience needed, ask a librarian in that field to help.
6. If you’re interested in public services, do all you can to get teaching experience. You don’t need the career goal of “instruction librarian” to benefit from this work. Almost all subject specialist librarians and reference librarians will do teaching in one way or another. If you can’t get a graduate student position that involves teaching, see if you can co-teach with a librarian….or if you’re in a better position to assist with technology training rather than information literacy instruction, do it. It can be challenging to get teaching experience, but be tenacious in seeking out opportunities.
7. If you’re interested in instruction, take coursework in educational theory, educational psychology, and/or instructional design, if possible. These courses are probably outside the library school and you can probably swap out LIS credit for this credit. LIS education is notoriously bad at preparing folks to teach and understand how people learn, so you’ll gain more from going to experts in the field.
8. In a recent study examining the factors that help with a successful job search, newly hired LIS graduates didn’t think that technology skills mattered that much to their successful job search. That said, I believe that any real technology skills you build as an LIS student can end up useful to you later. These skills need to be legitimate though, not something you were required to use for some small part of a course. So seek out opportunities to build such skills in context. Find or create real projects that are applicable to libraries, even if you do them on your own outside a student job or field experience.
On Reflective Practice
Lastly, I’ll argue that getting experience alone is not enough. It’s not enough to just work at a reference desk or teach instruction sessions. It’s essential to reflect on what you’re learning. Libraries want to hire thinkers and innovators, not just to fill a hole in their staff. As Donald Schön (who studied the way practitioners think) would say, practitioners “reflect-in-action” and are “build(ing) up a repertoire of examples, images, understandings, and actions” (see The Reflective Practitioner). As a practitioner you use your repertoire of past experiences to help you deal with unknowns when you confront them in the present. This is a fluid process between knowns and unknowns and it’s ongoing throughout your professional life. Such reflection-in-action is the heart of reference, for example, and lets you take in the question posed, work it over with the asker, and move towards a solution. Reflecting-in-action is also the backbone of becoming a better, more thoughtful and effective teaching librarian — at one year into your career, at two years, five years, or even like me, at thirteen years. Being reflective in your practice helps you respond to what’s really at the heart of what’s in front of you when dealing with a new professional challenge rather than to apply the same old approach or slot people and events into this or that believed norm or assumption. It helps you recognize your limitations and to question how you can become better…and better…and better. It enables you to question how to improved things, whatever your work context. To become complacent is a sad thing.
For the LIS student moving into professional practice, it’s reflection on your experience that helps you tie it together meaningfully as a growing practitioner. In an applied way, such reflection will enable you not just to state your qualifications in a cover letter; it’ll help you tell your professional story and know who you are as a growing librarian. It’ll help you answer interview questions about your own experience, what you learned, how you’d do things differently the next time, and what you see as being at the heart of what matters to you in libraries — the things beyond interfaces, search boxes, budgets, the “reference interview,” physical and virtual collections, etc. Such reflection, as an ongoing way of being, is what pushes someone to become an amazing librarian throughout his or her career, someone up to the evolving challenges that are an exciting reality of librarianship and growth as a practicing professional and person.
Kim Duckett is the Associate Head for Digital Technologies and Learning in the Research and Information Services department at the North Carolina State University Libraries. She earned her MSLS at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2001. She has extensive professional experience with online learning and learning technologies in libraries and currently manages a team focused on information literacy instruction, e-learning, and outreach. Her other professional interests include learning spaces, how libraries support pedagogical innovation, and user experience research.